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They'll Be Watching in Westwood

Midwest Regional matchup between Pittsburgh and Marquette brings together two probable candidates for the vacancy at UCLA.

March 27, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — One of tonight's games in the Midwest Regional appears preordained, the other could be prophetic.

Wisconsin is bound to be crushed by top-seeded Kentucky, line up for a team photo, say cheese and return to Madison to watch highlights from the improbable second-round comeback over Tulsa that made the season.

Pittsburgh against Marquette, though, promises to be a classic that holds as much interest in Los Angeles as in the steel city and Milwaukee. The teams are coached by two of the hottest names associated with the UCLA opening.

May the best future Bruin win.

Ben Howland's second-seeded Panthers (28-4) share like Marxists on offense (five players average from 9.8 to 12.2 points) and are stubborn mules on defense (opponents have reached 70 points only twice). They rank in the nation's top five in field-goal percentage and field-goal percentage defense.

In other words, Pitt makes its shots and its opponents don't.

Tom Crean's third-seeded Golden Eagles (25-5) have twin towers who score like guards and two guards who, well, also score like guards. Six-foot-10 forwards Robert Jackson and Scott Merritt create mismatches against a Pittsburgh lineup with no starter over 6-7, and guards Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener combined for 94 points in two tournament victories.

In other words, Pitt defensive specialist Julius Page can't guard everybody.

There is so much mutual respect between the coaches that they should list one another as references to UCLA.

Said Howland: "[Marquette] is very physical. They are huge. But they are also sound defensively, are outstanding rebounders and have a variety of offensive threats. They execute. They emphasize the same things we do."

Said Crean: "I don't see any real weaknesses in Pittsburgh. I don't see anything but guys that want to win, play together, play tough and don't beat themselves. They have a real simple elegance about their game. They make grinding it out and taking each possession a thing of beauty."

The outcome will ride on Marquette's ability to exploit its size advantage and on Pittsburgh's ability to shut down Wade and Diener. Page will cover Wade, the Conference USA player of the year.

"I'm going to get him; it's a given," Page said. "Everybody knows I'm going to guard him. He knows it. Their whole coaching staff knows it. He'll be ready, and I'm going to be ready."

Pittsburgh point guard Brandin Knight will try to stop Diener, who is averaging 27.5 points in the tournament, making 10 of 17 three-point shots.

The winner probably will face Kentucky (31-3) in an Elite Eight game. The Wildcats have won 25 in a row since early losses to Louisville, Michigan State and Virginia.

This is their fifth Sweet 16 in six seasons under Coach Tubby Smith, who has coached three different teams this far in the last 10 years. None of the current players were part of the 1998 NCAA championship Kentucky team, however, giving fifth-seeded Wisconsin a sliver of hope.

"It's certainly good to be an underdog, I've always loved being in this position," Badger guard Kirk Penney said. "We have nothing to lose. We just go out there, do what we do well and see what happens."

Penney must defend Kentucky senior Keith Bogans, a rangy scorer with a wealth of experience. Every Wildcat starter is a scoring threat, especially when they rev up the running game by forcing turnovers on the perimeter.

"Kentucky is a fast-paced team that thrives on a fast-paced game," said Freddie Owens, whose three-point basket with one second left completed Wisconsin's 61-60 comeback against Tulsa.

That game was in Spokane, Wash., and only a handful of Badger fans were on hand to cheer. The Metrodome will feel almost like a home court for Wisconsin and Marquette tonight.

For a team searching for a reason to believe, that's a plus for Wisconsin.

"We just hope we get some support," Badger Coach Bo Ryan said.

For a team searching for a slight edge in a close game, it's also a plus for Marquette.

"Our fan support has been great all season," Wade said. "I don't know if we'll have more than [Pittsburgh]. This is the kind of game where the players tune stuff out."

And it will be a game UCLA followers want to watch.

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